Kim Ki-duk is back with another frankly baffling state of the nation style assault on contemporary Korean values. In contrast with much of his other work, One On One is much more dependent on plot and dialogue and has a much more straightforward yet distant shooting style than the poetic and painterly scenes we often see from him. Like his other films however, it employs shocking episodes of violence to expose some of society’s festering wounds, though perhaps this time it’s with the eyes of a curious anthropologist rather than an embittered social investigator.
This oddly symmetrical tale begins with the shockingly matter of fact murder of a young schoolgirl by a gang of seven masked aggressors. Following this seemingly senseless crime another group of seven, this time a group of vigilantes brought together by a desire for some kind of personal vengeance against society, have taken it upon themselves to avenge this killing by kidnapping each of the seven perpetrators and torturing them until they confess and give some kind of information regarding the true nature of the crime. In another duality, the “villains” are all well to do, successful underlings whereas the “vigilantes” are generally working-class people who’ve lost out in the current economic climate and in some cases are living in dire poverty through no fault of their own. The villains offer several different reactions or explanations for their involvement in such a heinous crime varying from “I was just following orders” or “it was for the common good” to “what does it matter, I have status and can do as I please” but at the end of the day those on both sides will have to realise that the lines between good and bad are much more fluid than most people would like to think and that eventually you will have to decide for yourself not just where you stand but who it is you really are.
One on One often feels like a slightly underbaked pudding, the flavour is good (mostly) but it’s gone a bit soggy in the middle. The symmetrical nature of the two sets of seven is interesting as is the direct mirroring of their social statuses, but somehow the ideas don’t quite feel developed enough and even end up feeling a little too neat or obvious. The elite group who murdered the schoolgirl in the beginning are all successful people with seemingly no particular worries in their lives other than being caught up in a hierarchical system and left unable to climb the ladder fast enough. When one of the men explains simply that this isn’t his fault, he was only following orders and whoever gave the order is to blame, he is reminded that one day he may be the one giving the orders he seems to regard as the natural order of things. He and some of the others seem to have an unshakeable faith that they would not have been asked to do this (and presumably other “crimes” too) had it not been of vital importance for the survival of the Republic of South Korea. Where this “faith” comes from remains unclear, though it offers the slim justification of the senseless murder of a teenage girl. Some of these men wanted to get ahead and simply didn’t care what they had to do to get there, but others at least thought their actions had a noble purpose no matter how terrifyingly awful the task they’ve been assigned.
The group of vigilantes by contrast are mostly those who’ve been disadvantaged by the current climate of Korean society. One is living on instant ramen, which as is pointed out by the group’s leader is a staple food for the poor but simply “a snack” for the rich, whilst trying to save money for his wife’s medical treatment and fend off various loan sharks. Another is living outside his old tenement building in a tent with his mother who seems to be suffering with dementia because they have nowhere else to go. The young men are angry that even if they’ve done everything right - got a degree, been abroad, learned English, they still can’t get those steady white collar jobs and leg up into the middle classes like they were always promised. The one aberration in the group is its only female, whose anger stems from being involved in an abusive relationship which she nevertheless does not seem keen to end. It isn’t difficult to see where their anger stems from and for most of them the vigilante activities are a way of taking a personal revenge against society as a whole by taking these entitled, well connected “thugs” down a peg or two and trying to make them realise the true nature of their societal roles.
However, things start to fall apart towards the end where Kim allows his message to become a little too muddy. There are good bad guys and bad good guys, nobody’s perfect and perhaps nobody even wants to be - can you really build a society when everyone has completely lost sight of any kind of human compassion? At one point some of the vigilantes attempt to make the best of their situation by exclaiming “ah, at least we aren’t in North Korea” which just makes you half wonder if North Korea isn’t just a giant government conspiracy designed to maintain the status quo by allowing the lowest members of society to feel good enough about their situation to avoid any revolutionary grumblings from the proletariat. The title card at the end flashes up three words - “Who Am I?” - with no other explanation to whom they might pertain. Like all the best riddles there might be several answers to that multifaceted problem, though they may end up saying more about those who answer than those who posed the question.
One on One was screened as part of the 2014 London Korean Film Festival